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Jefferson County Gives Back to Veterans through Specialized Treatment Court

Jefferson County now offers a specialized treatment court for veterans dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues.

Twenty-two million veterans live in the United States. Of that 22 million, 335,000 live in Kentucky. Jefferson County specifically, is home to 56,000 veterans, making it the largest veteran population in the commonwealth. Nearly 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression—not to mention the countless other issues faced by returning soldiers.

Considering these statistics, it’s not surprising that members of the Jefferson County judicial system are taking such an interest in providing these individuals with support.

On Nov. 20, 2012 the Kentucky judicial branch, the Office of the Jefferson County Attorney and the Robley Rex Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center announced the opening of a specialized court for veterans suffering from issues of substance abuse and mental health. The Jefferson County Veteran’s Treatment Court (JCVTC) will attempt to offer a more successful route to the sobriety, health and future of these individuals who have become a part of the criminal justice system due to issues of this nature.

JCVTC is the first of its kind in Kentucky. The project is a joint effort between the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), Office of the Jefferson County Attorney, the VA Medical Center, Jefferson County Drug Court, Seven Counties Services and Morehead State University. Hardin County and Fayette County are currently seeking grants for their own veterans treatment courts.

JCVTC is being funded by a three-year, $350,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice. Subsequent years will depend on more funding—of which, District Judge David Holton said, state legislators have already committed to try to help secure from Frankfort.

Judge Holton has played and will continue to play a major part in the JCVTC program—from proposing the idea to the county attorney in 2010 to helping secure funding, develop a plan and transform an idea into a reality—he has seen the process through to its inception and will continue to impact the program’s mission through his weekly sessions with JCVTC participants.

Although bringing the project to life was no easy undertaking, Judge Holton remained positive. “I think all along I believed it would eventually materialize because it is such a worthwhile project,” he said. “These veterans have given so much to our country to protect our liberty and preserve our freedoms … and if in the course of their service they suffer conditions that lead them to the criminal justice system because of mental illness, because of PTSD, because of substance addiction … I feel like we as a society owe it to them to assist them back onto their feet.”

The JCVTC program is, at minimum, an 18-month process and individuals are chosen based on both a clinical and a legal screen. The VA Medical Center receives a list of inmates who self-identify themselves as veterans and then sends a veterans justice outreach specialist (VJO) to the jail to perform an interview and clinical screening of each of these individuals. Jefferson County VJOs include Sonny Hatfield and William Mathis. VJOs are also the liaison between the VA Medical Center of Louisville and the Jefferson County court system.

Assistant County Attorney George Moore, who is also the JCVTC prosecutor, is in charge of performing the legal screen. The information obtained through the interviews and screenings helps determine the appropriateness of an individual for the program.

Hatfield said individuals who would not be considered for the program would be anyone “deemed a public safety risk—whose charges are beyond the pale of being able to benefit from substance abuse treatment, PTSD treatment or traumatic brain injury treatment.”

“Not every veteran who comes through the criminal justice system is appropriate for veterans treatment court,” Judge Holton said. “They must have issues of mental health and substance abuse that contribute to their criminal charges.” PTSD, bipolar disorder and depression—“These are the things we look for to make sure we have an appropriate candidate,” he said.

As the program is still in its early stages, there are currently only three veterans enrolled, but as interviews and screenings continue, participation will increase and eventually several veterans may be enrolled at any given time. For skeptics of the program, this wasn’t a decision made over night. In fact, high success rates of other veterans treatment courts across the country have been recognized. At the Nov. 20 news conference, County Attorney Mike O’Connell said that “of the graduates that Judge Russell had in his veterans treatment court in Buffalo, N.Y., there’s been not one incidence of recidivism through the court system.”

Veterans enrolled in JCVTC are required to attend weekly support meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, VA mental health treatments and/or whatever else may be appropriate in each specific case. In addition, the veteran must be available for drug and alcohol screenings at least twice a week and must meet with his or her assigned judge once a week to discuss progress and goals.

Judge Holton said that one of the goals of JCVTC is to eventually help each physically and mentally able veteran find employment. He said that the program has recruited partners who are committed to facilitating this goal. Another goal is to assist these veterans in obtaining proper living arrangements.

Unfortunately, unemployment and homelessness among veterans is not uncommon, as nationally, 76,000 are homeless and 945,000 are unemployed. Not only do these concerns alone pose serious problems to the health and well-being of an individual, according the U.S. Department of Defense website, there were 303 potential active-duty, Reserve and National Guard suicides in 2012—that outnumbers combat deaths for the year and is, on average, nearly 25 suicides per month.

An added bonus of JCVTC is the mentor program. Mentors are veterans themselves and attend court each week to offer support and guidance to the JCVTC participant through their similar and shared experiences as a veteran—and in some cases, as a veteran who has also experienced mental health issues. Additionally, a Veterans Task Force, headed by Justice Will T. Scott, has been formed as part of the work of the Access for Justice Commission. The task force is currently in the process of pulling together a list of attorneys who are veterans themselves that may potentially be willing to provide pro bono legal services to other veterans.

“This is just a program that is very important,” O’Connell said at the news conference. “It’s a court that I think will be a shining example hopefully for people around the country and certainly within this state. But bottom line is: it’s a court we hope will help a lot of people.”

The Legal Aid Society is also stepping up in support of Jefferson County’s veteran population and has launched a new online tool that will assist veterans in accessing benefits. More information on Legal Aid’s online tool can be found to the right of this article.

Jenny Bencomo

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